Hex - Thomas Olde Heuvelt

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Hex - Thomas Olde Heuvelt ****

The people of Black Spring have a problem with the paranormal, but they've learned to live with it. Up until now. The remote little town is living under a 300 year old curse, haunted by a witch whose apparitions are somewhat random and unsettling. Bound in chains, her eyelids stitched together to prevent the power of her evil eye, her mouth also stitched to keep her from whispering the curses that provoke suicidal thoughts, there's nothing for it but to pop a tea towel over her head when the Black Rock Witch decides to stand for a couple of hours or even days in your bedroom or kitchen.

It's still disturbing, but what are you going to do about it? Leaving or moving out of Black Spring isn't an option, as any extended absence will result in nightmares and suicidal thoughts. Far easier to just live with the curse than try to fight against it - you have no idea what will result from any direct disturbance of the witch. The citizens of the town also evidently need to prevent outside visitors from seeing what goes on as anything more than a local piece of folklore made-up to attract tourists. The town's HEX officials monitor sightings of the witch and do their best to discourage anyone from actually thinking of moving into Black Spring. You move there and you won't be moving out again.

That's not just the outline of the nature of the horror in Thomas Olde Heuvelt's Hex, it's also its main selling point. Instead of the usual ghost who only manifests to certain people, and people try to capture elusive documentary information to prove the existence of something paranormal, the Black Rock Witch is all too visible, and the people who see her everyday and track her whereabouts want to keep their secret hidden from the wider world. Why? Well, the outside world has tried to get involved at one point and the consequences were disastrous, so they've left the citizens of Black Spring to fend for themselves in whatever way they can.

Hex then is all about living with the paranormal. How would people really behave in such a situation? And can a society really function normally and not be affected on some deep level by having to live in close proximity to real horror? Having lived with it all their lives, the older citizens would know what they are dealing with, but that doesn't mean that they would remain immune from the more insidious impact that this would have over many years. The younger people would know of no other way of life, but in an age where there is increasing technology, social media and it's more difficult to remain untouched by the outside world, some more inquisitive youths are willing to conduct their own ill-advised experiments and document the consequences.

Originally published in the Netherlands and Belgium in 2013 set in a small Dutch community, Hex has been rewritten and revised by the author for the English language market, the story now revised to an American setting. It does feel like a little too much effort has gone into making the Grant family seem all-American at first, but that drops away and feels much more natural when the focus switches to just how human beings would behave when dealing with the supernatural on an everyday basis. It's this middle section of the book that is most successful as you start to realise the nature of powers of the 18th century witch and what happens when she is disturbed.

As you might expect however, things escalate in the final third of the book. In some ways this is predictable, but really it's also inevitable. It's hard to imagine that things could turn out any other way. What is effective however is how Hex develops the relationships between the people and the witch, where there is horror and sympathy on both sides and maybe even for a time something of a switching of where those allegiances lie. The conclusion is however not as convincing or as original as the middle section of the book and the author does tend to fall back on familiar horror imagery and stock human reactions. Perhaps the original Dutch ending was more effective, but for a large part of the book, Hex is undoubtedly a compelling and chillingly sinister read.

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Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt is published by Hodder & Stoughton.

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